Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween: the silliest holiday?

Halloween is perhaps the silliest of our holidays, a good example of following tradition just because it's tradition, like the woman who always cut her turkey in half for Thanksgiving baking.
    One day her daughter asked her, "Mom, why do you cut the turkey in half?"
    Her mom said, "Hmm, I don't really know, that's just what my mother always did."
    So her daughter called her grandmother: "Grandma, why do we cut the turkey in half?
    "Lands, dear, I don't know. You'd have to ask my mother."
    So her granddaughter wrote to her great grandmother: "Great Gran, why do we cut the turkey in half?"
    And her great grandmother replied: "Oh, sweetie, our oven wasn't big enough for the whole bird."

That's my treat for readers today. And you didn't even have to put on a witch's costume and come out in the dark to knock on my door.

November 4: Follow-up on the silliness of Halloween
Thanks to William B. Ross, MD, for the anecdote, which he told me in about 1973 in order to illustrate that just because something is a tradition doesn't mean there's a sound basis for continuing to observe it. It has continued to instruct and guide, reminding me to look for reasons for doing things rather than to follow unsound habits.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mystery machine

Something that doesn't exist can be anything we want. That's why God, for example, is so many different things to people. Everything from a forgiving father to a despot demanding the heads of infidels. He's whatever people want, or think they want, or have been told they want—or their parents wanted.
    And our imagined future is another example. We can't be different today from what we are today, but we can imagine that, in the future, when we don't yet (and might never) exist, we can be anything we want.

Something that doesn't exist can be anything we want. What a strange thought that is. And what a play on be!
    Nature, in evolving minds, created not just exquisite plumages and coats, symmetrical smiles and curves, but a marvelous, mysterious neuronal machine—a machine that can play with what isn't as well as what is.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Work imagined in progress

Software for
writing screenplays
Moristotle is contemplating retiring from his retirement job (forty hours a week for the University of North Carolina) in a few months. While he looks forward to being able to spend more time blogging, he wonders whether he might enjoy a larger writing project, such as a novel or a screenplay—assuming that his brain hasn't deteriorated too much to keep in mind all that writing a novel or a screenplay entails.
    He has already concluded that if he undertakes a larger project, it'll be a screenplay, simply because he knows less about screen writing and would likely learn more from it than from writing another novel1.
    He had begun, idly, to wonder what he might write about, realizing that it should be something that he cared enough about to become "passionate" over.
    This morning, while heating water for coffee and ruminating over the morality of eating animal flesh when a host serves it to him, he thought of a screenplay about someone (or some group) that tries to do more for animal rights than just becoming a vegetarian or vegan (especially if mostly a "philosophical" one)....
  1. In 1974, in one hundred days, he wrote The Unmaking of the President: A Bicentennial Entertainment. Alas, it never found a publisher.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Cow being restrained for stunning
An often brilliantly astute reader tells me that Heather Moore's letter (October 23, in Durham's Herald-Sun)1 is "hysterical propaganda." He contrasts it to Wikipedia's entry on animal slaughter, which includes the following statements in its section about "approved methods" of animal butchering in the United States:
Chemical (carbon dioxide)...The animal is asphyxiated by the use of carbon dioxide gas before being bled.
    Mechanical (captive bolt)...A captive bolt stunner is applied to the livestock so as to produce immediate unconsciousness in the animals before they are bled.
    Mechanical (gunshot)...The gun is used to render the animal immediately unconscious (and presumably dead) before being bled.
    Electrical (stunning or slaughtering with electric current)...The current applied is sufficient to ensure surgical anesthesia throughout the "bleeding" of the animal.
    Each of these methods is outlined in detail, and the regulations require that inspectors identify operations which cause undue "excitement and discomfort" of animals.
    [and, from the linked-to entry on slaughterhouses] Investigations by animal welfare and animal rights groups have indicated that a proportion of these animals are being skinned or gutted while apparently still alive and conscious [emphasis mine]. There has also been criticism of the methods of transport of the animals, who are driven for hundreds of miles to slaughterhouses in conditions that often result in crush injuries and death en route. Slaughtering animals is opposed by animal rights groups on ethical grounds.
The reader probably saw my April 14 log, "No country for old men," which quoted a passage about animal slaughter from Jonathan Safran Foer's 2009 argument, Eating Animals. The reader may even have read Foer's book. His tolerance for the inhumane treatment of other animals seems nevertheless much greater than mine2. Sensitivity to animal suffering is a minority position in this country.
    The vast majority of Americans eat their "meat" without much thought, out of habit and from tradition. If they think about what they are eating, some such rationalization occurs to them as, If my parents and their parents ate pig, cow, and chicken, how can it be wrong? And if they're Christians, they may, in worshiping their carnivorous God, even eat and drink the flesh and blood of a man.
  1. The Herald-Sun ran my letter yesterday, under the title, neither reviewed nor approved by me, "Is there a moral way to eat meat?"
  2. Either that, or he's perhaps two or three times as sensitive as I am, which would explain his apparent tendency to want to minimize what happens in the factory farming and slaughtering of animals (that is, so that he can protect his own feelings through denial).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Courtesy's dilemma

Alec Baldwin narrates
"Meet Your Meat"
Letters to local editors have been unremarkable lately. But in Durham's Herald-Sun this morning, under a title that "quoted" a yard sign I saw in Mountain View a couple of weeks ago, was a letter from Heather Moore of the PETA Foundation1.
    "PETA" stands for "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals." I'm not a member of PETA, but I am a person for the ethical treatment of animals.
    Or am I?
    Ms. Moore's letter asks whether we "want to be truly horrified this Halloween?" Assuming we do, she suggests that we "forget Friday the 13th and watch 'Meet Your Meat'—frightening footage from factory farms and slaughterhouses, chilling places full of panic and bloodshed...."

In writing to commend her, I came to an unexpected, and self-challenging, conclusion:
Thanks to Heather Moore of PETA for reminding us how horribly we human animals treat other animals, many of whom have sufficient intelligence and consciousness to suffer terribly in the process of being fed and slaughtered for our unnecessary culinary pleasure.
    Ms. Moore asks whether we "want to be truly horrified this Halloween." The answer, of course, is that we do not. We'll not spend a second longer on this topic than we need to realize that we must change the subject to preserve our peace of mind.
    We won't stop eating animals, however beneficial to our health, or however much they suffer. Just don't make us think about it.
    Philosophically, I'm not one of the "we" or the "us," but out of courtesy to my host I will eat animal flesh if it's served. Ms. Moore prompts me to reconsider whether that courtesy is morally justified.2
I like it that there's a religious angle to all of this. If God wrote the Bible (and God were ethical), there'd be no animal sacrifice in it, Old or New.
  1. The full text of Ms. Moore's letter, which may not be available on the web for long:
    Want to be truly horrified this Halloween? Then forget Friday the 13th and watch "Meet Your Meat"—frightening footage from factory farms and slaughterhouses, chilling places full of panic and bloodshed. Nearly 10 billion terrified animals are killed in slaughterhouses every year. They bellow in pain and agony and fight for their lives, but they are no match for the knife-wielding killers who string them up, slice their throats, and often dump then in scalding water to soften their skin and remove their hair or feathers. Many are boiled alive or dismembered while they're still conscious.
        This eerie scene plays out not just on Halloween, but 365 days a year. See it for yourself at But I warn you: It will give you nightmares. The only way to make the horror stop is by switching to a vegan diet.
  2. The Herald-Sun ran my letter on October 25, under the title, neither reviewed nor approved by me, "Is there a moral way to eat meat?"

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Political half-gainer

After ridiculing yet another of the myriad rationalizations he exposes in his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens states unequivocally on p. 379: "I regard it as a matter of self-respect to spit in public on rationalizations of this kind."
    The statement could be this blogger's motto, called upon as I am, in my own small, self-respecting way, to expose religious absurditities and theological half-gainers.
    During the Republican presidential primary debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney responded to comments about his religion's being a cult. He is reported by The Washington Post ("Mitt Romney takes on Mormon ‘cult’ comments, takes fire from GOP rivals") to have said: "That idea that we should choose people based on their religion is the one that I find to be most troubling."
    Rick Perry was one of the rivals present. He's the governor of Texas. Article 1, Section 4 of the Texas state constitution states that
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments....
    Pretty good, eh? You might not have thought that one of Romney's opponents had such a convenient rug for Romney to pull out from under him.
    Oh, but wait. The passage from the Texas state constitution specifies a provision:
No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being [emphasis mine]1.
    Hey, come on, Rick, Mitt passes that test.

The trouble here, of course, really is that business about acknowledging the existence of a Supreme Being (a Supreme Being?—aren't we monotheists, here in America?). You do pretty much have to do that to be electable to higher political office anywhere in America, and not just in Texas.
    Or at least you have to not deny it—if you can avoid being asked where you stand in the first place. But what are the chances of that in an American political campaign?
    We have every reason to doubt that Romney's self-serving response doesn't mean that if he were to be chosen, he would oppose "the idea that we should choose people based on their being religious."
  1. I didn't find this passage myself. A skeptical reader questioned one of my Christopher Hitchens quotes yesterday and did some fact-checking. Hitchens had said, "[Texas has] laws, I think, that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ you can’t run for sheriff." My skeptical reader reported that "The Hitchens quote is very close to the truth."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Doesn't need to run for sheriff

Hitchens, Matthew Chapman,
Richard Dawkins, and Carol Blue
(Hitchens's wife)
While I was attending a mini high school class reunion two weekends ago at Lake Tahoe, Christopher Hitchens was in Houston receiving the Freethinker of the Year Award at the annual convention of the Triple A (the Atheist Alliance of America). In "A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality," by Charles McGrath, published October 9 in The New York Times, Hitchens is quoted as saying
I’m not sure [atheists] need to be honored. We don’t need positive reinforcement. On the other hand, we do need to stick up for ourselves, especially in a place like Texas, where they have laws, I think, that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ you can’t run for sheriff.
    The word "mortality" in McGrath's title refers to the fact that Hitchens discovered in June 2010 that he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer. About that he wrote in September 2010, "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It adds up

Yesterday afternoon I mentioned to a friend who lives down the street that on Saturday, while waiting on our daughter and son-in-law's boat at the Coyote Point Marina (until it was time to go to San Francisco International Airport for our overnight flight home), we watched The Sum of All Fears. It was the first, and we hope it won't be the last, Tom Clancy movie with Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan (and Bridget Moynahan as the supposedly future Mrs. Jack Ryan; she's Police Commissioner Frank Reagan's daughter Erin in Blue Bloods).
    I got excited when my friend said there was a sequel.
    "Have you seen it yet?" I asked eagerly. "What's its title?"
    "Haven't seen it, but it's called 'The Fear of All Sums.' For people with a math phobia.
    Zing! My witty friend had me again, for the what-teenth time I'm unable to say.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nary a one

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
After recovering sufficiently from a ten-day vacation [on which I took along a copy of Christopher Hitchens's 2006 book, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography (Books That Changed the World)], I checked all of the editions of the Durham Herald-Sun that a neighbor had piled on our dining table, to see whether there were any more letters to respond to on the subject of the Bible's having been written by God.
    Nary a one!
    I think I detect some disappointment in myself that there wasn't one, but I'm mostly elated.

This way, I can imagine that Gordon Hansen & Co. have all gone back and re-read their Bibles with newly opened eyes and been able to discover for themselves what Thomas Paine could have told them:
Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel. [–The Age of Reason]
    The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidences that the human language, whether in speech or in print, cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God. [ibid]
    What is it the New Testament teaches us? To believe that the Almighty committed debauchery with a woman engaged to be married; and the belief of this debauchery is called faith. [ibid]
    Paine wrote that "The Bible...has been read more, and examined less, than any [other] book that ever existed" [as quoted by Joseph Lewis in Inspiration and Wisdom from the Writings of Thomas Paine].

Hmm, if there had been another letter to respond to, I'm sure I could have found a way to quote Paine.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hopeless in Afghanistan

A very close acquaintance linked me to an editorial by Al Neuharth in Friday's USA Today ("Dollars and sense of 10 Afghan years") because he knows some of my thoughts on our adventure in Afghanistan and Neuharth seems to have expressed them for me. I agree. For example, Neuharth posits
the hopelessness of trying nation-building in Afghanistan. Three countries have tried, with these results:
  • The British tried it three times — from 1839-42, 1878-80 and in 1919. They failed each time and lost 28,000 troops.
  • Russia (then USSR) tried it for 10 years (1979-89) and failed, losing 14,000 troops.
  • Our 10-year misadventure in Afghanistan has taken the lives of 1,795 of our military men and women.
    In addition to the sad loss of lives, Afghanistan has cost us more than $443 billion.
    My acquaintance was dejected from having recently heard that his wife's niece's husband's second son is eagerly about to head for Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine. "That misplaced eagerness just broke my heart."

Oxnard idyl

A very close acquaintance sent this photo to me the day before yesterday, from the Channel Islands Harbor marina (in Oxnard, California). He was staying with his wife at the Hampton Inn there.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lake Tahoe idyl

Click to enlarge

A very close acquaintance sent this photo to me this afternoon, from Lake Tahoe Keys. The geese were on his back lawn when he returned from a bit of boating on the lake with three of his guests.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Splitting the difference

My wife and I are splitting up for a couple of days, and I was taking her luggage to her car.
    "Don't mix up mine and yours," she said.
    "If I did," I said, "for a couple of days we could cross-dress."

Friday, October 7, 2011

A mouthful of pain

Click to enlarge
A very close acquaintance sent this photo to me this morning, from Mountain View, California, where he spotted it in a yard on Middlefield Road alongside California Hwy 85., whose subtitle is "The Website the Meat Industry Doesn't Want You to See," features a video statement by Paul McCartney. I wrote about this sort of thing on April 14: "No country for old men."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nailed it (and no damn fooling)

The Letters editor of the Durham Herald-Sun telephoned me last night. She was going to run my letter in the morning.
    "You printed it this morning," I said.
    "No, tomorrow's will be your 'abominable things' letter."
    "I submitted that on Friday, right after reading Gordon Hansen's letter."
    "Oh?" she said. "I just received it this morning. Hmm, I'm going to have to check what else might not be being sent on to me....
    "You're right about religious rants," she said. "They do generate some interest. When letters have been kind of boring and one like that comes in, I'm glad to run it. And letters like yours, they're welcome anytime. Thank you for submitting them."

So, the game wasn't cancelled after all, although whatever happened that she didn't receive my letter immediately was a sort of rain delay.
    And it appears that I hadn't needed to soften my "Constitution seems to guarantee the right of The People to believe any damn fool thing they want" in Friday's letter to "Constitution seems to guarantee the right of The People to believe anything they want" in the one she printed yesterday.
    Good on you, Ms. Betsy O'Donovan!

Did you see my letter?" I asked my wife from the kitchen.
    "You nailed it," she said.
Today's letter on the web

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A former Baptist, that is

A fitting objet trouvé to accompany my letter in today's Durham Herald-Sun1 sort of reached up this morning from p. 376 of Christopher Hitchens's 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, and tapped me on the shoulder. I found the objet in the chapter, "The Jewish Question," in which Hitchens explains how he discovered that he was a Jew and reports on his extensive investigations into his Semitic roots:
As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil. Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions [I think these are the writings from which Mr. Gordon Hansen likes to select those that support his prejudices against gays and women], we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism and mutation of Judaism and Christianity into the various rival forms of Islam....2
As ever and always, Christopher Hitchens, thank you, thank you for your mind and your heart.
  1. The rest of the paragraph:
    Much of the time, I do concur with Voltaire, but not without acknowledging that Judaism is dialectical. There is, after all, a specifically Jewish version of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, with a specifically Jewish name—the Haskalah—for itself. The term derives from the word for "mind" or "intellect," and it is naturally associated with ethics rather than rituals, life rather than prohibitions, and assimilation over "exile" or "return." It's everlastingly linked to the name of the great German teacher Moses Mendelssohn, one of those conspicuous Jewish hunchbacks who so upset and embarrassed Isaiah Berlin. (The other way to upset or embarrass Berlin, I found, was to mention that he himself was a cousin of Menachem Schneerson, the "messianic" Lubavitcher rebbe.) However, even pre-enlightenment Judaism forces its adherents to study and think, it reluctantly teaches them what others think, and it may even teach them how to think also.
  2. Today's letter on the web

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Baptist weighs in

Well, they haven't printed my letter in reply to Gordon Hansen, but they printed Larry Bumgardner's this morning, and that gives me an opportunity to try again:
Judging by Mr. Bumgardner's letter this morning ("Southern Baptists will apologize again"), my having been a Baptist* confers on me, too, some authority to enter this conversation.
    Mr. Bumgardner writes: "Hanson [sic; “Hansen” according to the Sept. 30 edition] used scripture to justify hatred toward gays and a refusal to allow women to be pastors. If he were so disposed, he could use scripture to justify slavery…polygamy…stoning adulterous women…on and on."
    Quite right; the Bible is used to justify many incompatible things. What is one to conclude from this? God did NOT write the Bible; it is NOT His inspired word. Or, the Bible is no more inspired of God than, say, the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I can pick a word at random from the dictionary (or from any book whose language I can read) and "get an idea" that might (or might not) be helpful to me in solving a problem, being cheered up, making the right decision, or whatever I'm looking for. That's the nature of inspiration, the only inspiration we know.
    The First Amendment of our Constitution seems to guarantee the right of The People to believe anything they want, including that God wrote the Bible. That doesn't make it so—not when it flies in the face of facts and logic.
    If having been a Baptist qualifies me to say that, I suspect that Mr. Hansen would say that my use of logic disqualifies me.
    I’m not sure about Mr. Bumgardner. He too seems to be lapsed.
* Yes, I was a "First Baptist" for two or three years in high school, roughly fifty to fifty-five years ago. As well as I can remember, the church in the photo above—from somewhere on the Internet—could be the very one I attended (in Tulare, California).
In case the Herald's letters page should not be available for long), I include Mr. Bumgardner's letter here:
Southern Baptists will apologize again
I’m happy that Gordon Hanson wrote his letter (Sept. 30) objecting to my comments about Southern Baptist behavior. His letter speaks perfectly to the mindset that his children or grandchildren will one day be ashamed of.
    I am particularly qualified to speak of Southern Baptists since I was raised in that tradition and, up until about 15 years ago, was affiliated with them. Their decision to break from a longtime theological position referred to as the “priesthood of the believer” and switch to a top-down authoritarian rule demanding a belief in biblical inerrancy has decimated Southern Baptist ranks. Membership and baptisms continue to fall. I suspect their apology for slavery was motivated by their desire to pick up membership from similarly disposed black churches.
    Hanson used scripture to justify hatred toward gays and a refusal to allow women to be pastors. If he were so disposed, he could use scripture to justify slavery as his church years ago certainly did. He could justify polygamy, if he were so disposed. He could justify stoning adulterous women. The list goes on and on.
    The Bible Belt states have the highest incidence of divorce of any states in the union. The most liberal state in the union, Massachusetts, has the lowest divorce rate. What is it those folks are trying to tell us about living a moral life? It sure isn’t by setting an example. Sooner or later, an apology or serious regret will be forthcoming. It’s just a matter of time.
                                    –Larry Bumgardner, Durham

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Water Hyacinths by light

For a little night music, on September 19, I offered an early night-time photo of my wife's Water Hyacinths. Ken responded (on Facebook), "I'd like to see a daytime picture." So, thank Ken for two photos of recent blossoms (taken on September 29, no later than 6:40 p.m. Eastern). I trust that you can spot the almost-originals—they weren't filtered, but they were brightened up just a bit and given more contrast.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Must avoid the sports-dejection syndrome

Before I went to sleep last night, and before I arose this morning, I was excited with the anticipated excitement of reading my letter in Durham's Herald-Sun this morning.
    I stooped nimbly to gather the newspapers off the driveway and slid off their plastic sheaths on the way back into the dining room, where I separated the main section of the Herald and opened to the middle.
    But, sign of my letter.
    Damn, what a disappointment.
    It reminded me the disappointment felt by sports fans who go to one of "their" team's games (or watch in on TV), only to suffer a loss. Had I become a letter-to-the-editor fanatic? I really need to retrace my steps and not become that.

...Maybe they'll print my letter tomorrow!